Nurse education is now almost wholly situated within universities internationally. However, issues such as the necessity of higher education for what is seen as a practical occupation and the question of whether or not nursing is a profession arise. Newman viewed universities as places where training was given but character was also formed and self-awareness was developed through exposure to a wide range of disciplines and this type of education has helped to shape other professions. If nursing fulfills the criteria for a profession then it requires nurses to be properly educated in higher education. Poor media images of nursing, opposition from within and outside of the profession and poor funding for research, especially in the UK, where most nurses still do not enter the register with a degree, mean that the place of nursing in higher education remains on the periphery. Nurses must be competent to practice and higher education is not incompatible with the development of competent practitioners. However, higher education should take competent practitioners to a higher level whereby they become capable: able to respond appropriately in unfamiliar situations and to unfamiliar events. This paper argues for the role of higher education for nurses in terms of developing capability. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.